Around the middle of The Dang It Bobby’s newest release, Big Trouble, roughly around the time the title track breezes by, you begin to realize that something is amiss and there are subtle forces at play on their second album that might have passed over your head on the first run through. The lineup and musical foundation of the band leans bluegrass, and plucky banjos, rhythmic mandolin, well placed grace notes from acoustic guitars, and the odd dobro lick sliding up the fretboard adorn the albums thirteen tracks. But something is amiss in the best of possible ways. When you look at the Dang It Bobby’s foundation there’s an expectation that you might be in store for an album by yet another band delivering their take on some iteration of American roots music, and usually those attempts come of as very contrived and overly earnest. Big Trouble bucks that trend in every way, delivering song after well crafted song without pretense.
While the instrumentation might be somewhat traditional the content has nothing on Bill Monroe. Lyrically, Big Trouble is firmly rooted in “now” problems that aren’t exactly high and lonesome. Take the protagonist from “Sad Sack,” self loathingly gobbling anti-depressants because his scientologist love interest wants nothing to do with him. Surely this is the best Planet Zenu reference to grace an album this year. Whatever the story is behind the caper involving the Spanish speaking police and the culprit on “Big Trouble”, I’d like to know it. The tune, its alternating time signatures and English verse, Spanish chorus format is positively infectious and leaves you wanting more. Plenty of songs have been sung in the name of moderation, hindsight being 20/20, but how many are as fun as the albums opener “Middle Ground?” The sentiment is universal, we’ve all coddled that blackout drunk before, or maybe you’ve been the coddle-ee. Anyway you cut, that dancing drunk on the bar is easily identified with, and it’s that relatability that gives the Dang It Bobby’s music such a broad appeal.
It’s not only relatable for those with a penchant for popping mood elevators or for getting pinched by the Mexican police. Kris Bauman, the de facto leader of the Bobby’s, knows his way around a love song in a way that isn’t cheesy or contrived, which is pleasantly refreshing in a musical era where both qualities are available in abundance. How many songwriters can write a song simply titled “I Love You” and get away with? Its gentle melody lilts behind Bauman’s longing vocals, listen to it and you might feel a tinge of heartfelt sentimentality creeping through your snark filled outer shell.
It all works, all the love songs and tales of road trip high jinks, because the attention to detail placed on the melody of each track and pacing of the entire album is impeccable. The wacky, aforementioned “Sad Sack” could only follow the heart melting “I Love You.” The mournful “Heading Out,” a minor key pean to the promise of the highway, is smartly followed up by the instrumental “Whiskey Strut,” the most traditional and aptly named of Big Trouble’s thirteen tracks. Knowing where to place an instrumental on an album like this is as difficult as pulling off the actual track, the Bobby’s pass that test with flying colors. Ditto for “Roadkill Jerky” in which Bauman proves he’s no slouch in the banjo picking department either. Indeed, the whole band holds to a standard of playing that equals the considerable song craft on the offing. If you remember Luca Benedetti from his days with Ulu or his more recent Thermionics project, his playing might be unrecognizable to you, but his tasteful work on the acoustic guitar bulks up the foundation on most of the tracks. The rest of the core band is formed by Chris Higgins on bass, Alan Grubner on fiddle, Dave Burnett on drums, Dan Marcus on mandolin and Anna Small Billman on backing vocals. Not to be confused with some schmoes who walked into the studio off the street, their collective c.v. includes work as sidemen for Howard Levy, Norah Jones and Pat Metheny to name a few.
And therein it comes all together: the smart songwriting, the crisp melodies, players who can execute and then some, and the subtle touch of a leader who knows how to tie it all together. It’s not the kind of album that hits you over the head but give it a few listens and it won’t let go. Big Trouble is far and away the least cynical album I have had the pleasure of listening to in a long time, a much needed palate cleanser for all of indie self-loathing and jamband exercises in over think that tend to clog up the ol’ I Pod.